Feast Day: The Sunday after Christmas Day
Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
This homily is offered in memory of Allan Sinton who died on Christmas morning.
“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
It was just a few days ago now that we were gathered here in this church by candlelight to celebrate with great joy the Incarnation of our Lord—the coming of our great God and king in the flesh of a newborn babe. Light and life and joy! And yet almost straightaway, indeed the very next day, the church calendar takes a bit of a strange turn.
First there is St Stephen’s Day on December 26th. Stephen was the first martyr, stoned to death at the hands of a zealous pharisee and persecutor of the early church named Saul, who later converted to Christianity and became the Apostle Paul. December 27th is the feast day for our patron St John. John was the only apostle who was not martyred though he was tortured, boiled in oil, and then exiled to the island of Patmos. Finally, the feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th is the day the church remembers all of the children killed by Herod in and around Bethlehem. Why is it, we might ask, that after celebrating the birth of our Lord we are immediately plunged into a world of suffering and death? Let’s hang on to that question and take a closer look at our reading from St Matthew.
We are reacquainted once more with Joseph the just man. Again he hears from an angel of the Lord in a dream and again he obeys, simply and promptly. Because Joseph is a man who is attentive to and waits upon the word of God. And what is Joseph to do? He is to take the child and his mother and flee by night to Egypt for Herod, filled with rage, “is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
We might say that from the very beginning of the story the shadow of the cross is looming. Indeed, the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the cross. The swaddling clothes become the burial linens. The cave in which our Lord was born becomes the tomb in which his body is laid. In this child God comes to the world as an outsider for whom there is “no room,” not only at his birth but also at his death where he is crucified outside the city walls. This child was born to die.
So, the Holy Family journeys from Bethlehem to Egypt where they live for a time until the Lord speaks again to Joseph informing him that Herod is dead and he is now to take the child and his mother up out of Egypt and into the land of Israel. There are a number of things we could probably mention here. For example, we can see in this text the fact that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees, exiled from their home due to the maniacal ravings of a tyrant king and we could draw a connection to the plight of contemporary refugees who are driven from their homes and indeed to all of the children who this day are separated from their parents and being kept like animals in detention centres along the southern border of our neighbours. But I’m not going to mention that this morning.
Instead, I want us to think about how Matthew wants us to hear this story—the story of the child Jesus going down into Egypt and then coming up out of there into Israel. He wants us to hear this story and understand it as the fulfillment of, “what had been spoken through the prophets,” a phrase that Matthew uses three times in this short passage (2:15, 17, 23).
For, “out of Egypt I have called my son.” That comes from the prophet Hosea (11:1). In the Scriptures Israel is God’s son and that image of parental love is definitive of God’s relationship with his people. So, when Israel find themselves enslaved in Egypt God calls them out. But, tragically, Hosea tells us that in response to the Father’s calling the son ran away: “The more I called them, the more they went from me,” (11:2).
Part of what Matthew is wanting to do here is to help us see how Jesus is the true Israel. He is the faithful Son of the Father who in fact is going to do what Israel failed to do. When Jesus goes down into Egypt and returns he provides the definitive exodus and homecoming. As one commentator put it: “He is truly the Son. He is not going to run away from the Father. He returns home, and he leads others home…He leads the way back from exile to the homeland, back to all that is authentic and true.”
I know we’re Anglicans but can somebody say ‘amen’ this morning?
And we can press the connection with the Exodus further. Jesus is not only the true Israel who returns home but the true Moses who leads others home. Recall that Moses was the prophet that God used to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and bring them up out of there into the land of Israel. Now as the new Moses Jesus has come to liberate us from the enemy and bring us home to God our Father when he will say as in our reading from Hebrews, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me,” (2:13).
Let us return now to the question we put a pin in earlier: Why is it that after celebrating the birth of our Lord the calendar immediately plunges us into a world of suffering and death? Or, perhaps there is a better question: Is there any other world? No. The world is in misery. The world suffers violence and injustice. Therefore, if our Lord is truly to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, then he must be with us here in this world.
He comes as our brother to help us and becoming like us in every respect he even suffers and dies. The light and life of the world enters the darkness of death. And just here, in his death, he liberates us from captivity. Listen to how the author of Hebrews puts it: “Since, therefore, the children [that’s us] share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
You hear the echoes of the Exodus there can’t you? Moses goes into Egypt to confront Pharaoh and free those who are held in slavery. Jesus goes into the place of our captivity, death itself, so that he might destroy the devil and free those who are enslaved to the power of sin and death. And, moreover, Jesus does this by his death not in spite of it. As Orthodox Christians sing in their wonderful Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
Now because of Jesus death has lost its sting. Now because of Jesus that which was the enemy has become the remedy. Now because of Jesus our suffering and death is a birth. Now because of Jesus there is no longer anything that can separate us from the love of God. Now because of Jesus we are, each one of us, being lead home as God’s own children no longer slaves but free. This is our exodus.